There are some silver linings to attending a virtual conference. It’s a lot cheaper, for one thing. No one cares what you wear, for another. But one of the best aspects of the new Americana Music Association Foundation’s first event, “Thriving Roots: A Virtual Community Music Conference,” is that every session can be viewed as it airs, or any time after.
That alleviates the stress of having to choose whether to catch U.K. expat Yola and foundation board member Brandi Carlile, both Americana Honors & Awards Artist of the Year nominees, commiserating about their careers, or singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier diving into her songwriting process, her SongwritingWith:Soldiers work and her most well-known tune, “Mercy Now,” in a session with her partner, singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris.
Day 2 of this three-day conference, a reconfigured version of what would have been the 21st annual Americana Music Association gathering (which became AmericanaFest in 2015), offered several marquee names delivering taped performances and discussions or participating in real-time panel discussions, including answering questions from virtual attendees.
It began with an interesting juxtaposition: a showcase of Big Machine Label Group artists Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Cadillac Three and Sheryl Crow, who performed “Woman in the White House,” and a presentation titled “Folk the Vote: Music and Politics,” in which Deanna McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center, guided a tour of the center’s same-titled exhibit and interviewed folk singer and activist Ani DiFranco. One of the clips McCloud showed was of Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger and fellow Guthrie fan Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“It’s always interesting when we hear artists being told, ‘You’re not supposed to be talking about politics. You’re here to entertain us.’ And we couldn’t disagree more,” McCloud asserted. “Even Woody said, ‘I’m not an entertainer. I’m an educator.’ These artists are here to make us think, and we’re here to listen.”
Pointing to items representing Difranco’s “Vote Dammit!” initiative, McCloud noted, “It does take courage to put yourself out there and make sure that you are using your platform to speak for things that you believe in.”
Voting is a subject close to the hearts of many conference participants — literally; Crow, Gauthier and several others have worn T-shirts bearing that message, or expressed it verbally.
“Ani said voting is not so much an expression of self but an act of participation in the greater good,” Gauthier said during her segment, about accessing universality in songwriting. “It connects me to all the people who fought and died to give me the right to do it, and it connects me to the future.”
DiFranco, meanwhile, wore a T-shirt created by Kansas City-based Latinx rockers Making Movies, a band also known for its activism. “We are all immigrants,” it read.
Immigration, and speaking out, figured into the dialogue between Carlile and Yola, whose father was Ghanian and mother is Barbadian-British; their genes combined to give her an appearance she called “a harder sell in England.” Her mother tried to lighten her daughter’s skin with fade cream because life is easier for light-skinned Blacks in their own community as well as the white world. Yola said people also assume because of her look, she sings R&B, gospel or jazz, rather than Americana, in all of it’s country-rooted glory.
But Carlile observed that tokenism isn’t always bad; it can lead to inclusion and assimilation.
“When people are putting on a festival and I’m getting asked to be in the lineup because they’ve realized that their lineup isn’t diverse enough … in the past, I would say, ‘Absolutely, I’ll be the diverse person on that lineup. I want to be,’ she explained. “Then I’ll get onstage and say things into the microphone about how I’m a mom and that I’m gay and that I was married before it was even legal and that I’m the father on my daughter’s birth certificate and that there’s not a place for me and that I want to see that changed.”
She asked Yola, “How do we continue to leave the door open for different people who created the eccentricity and the beauty and the diversity in our music … without making the people that are going to help this assimilation feel scared to tokenize?”
Yola said she sometimes commits to a booking on the condition that other Black artists are added to the roster. “It’s about accruing enough influence to go, ‘Now, if you want me to be involved, I’m going to put some conditions on that.’”
The pair, already close friends, discussed their impoverished pasts, admitting they both still carry the “poor people’s hangover” of being afraid to open envelopes because of the bills that might be inside.
“People have nostalgia for their youth. I don’t want a second of my youth back,” Carlile insisted. “I don’t miss the pawn shops, I don’t miss the payday loans, I don’t miss the evictions, the power getting shut off — any of that stuff.”
Carlile observed that glitzy awards-show appearances don’t represent reality for most artists, who give the outfits right back, then go home to tasks like checking if there’s jumper cables in the car.“It’s really important for people to understand what it took to get here, and actually, what here really is,” she added, “as opposed to what we make it look like it is.”
She also advised young artists, “Build a community around yourself that you can sculpt, mold, leave, reinvent, grow within, because it’s very hard to do anything substantial alone.
“Art and music should always be striving to change the world, so you’re really trying to do more than just get your songs heard,” Carlile explained. “You’re trying to make a mark that extends beyond your lifetime. And that takes people.”
As for writing songs that people want to hear, Gauthier recalled Johnny Cash’s advice to “write simple.”
“Writing simple is hard,” she noted. “The challenge is to go inward and pull out what’s there and show us. It takes courage. So I encourage courage.”
Someone once told her she writes with a strong “truthometer” — which she now calls the most important contribution she can bring to music. Even if songs are about fictional characters, she added, the best ones tell stories that contain truths from within the writer’s own heart.
It’s not about fancy wordplay, she said; that just serves the artist’s ego. It’s about tapping into your own emotion, then expanding on it.
“Guy [Clark] used to say, basically we’re all goin’ through the same life,” Gauthier noted. “We’re just hittin’ the marks at different times.”